The Red Lines Page

February 22, 2009

Books about writing

Filed under: writing — Peter A @ 7:33 pm

In my post About Writing, I said I’d recommend some books. There are loads of these to choose from. In the US, in particular, books about writing are a minor industry. And there are courses, classes, web sites, fee-paying services, free resources, and goodness knows what else. These are just the things I found most useful.

  • The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (republished frequently). The classic text for simple, clear writing. A standard for anyone who wants to write well in any field.
  • The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young WritersThe Art of Fiction, by John Gardner.  This explains the basic skills, genre, common errors, techniques, plotting… It’s one of the most widely-referenced books for new writers.
  • Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative CraftWriting Fiction, by Janet Burroway. “A Guide to Narrative Craft”. Burroway is an author and teacher, and has taught a course on Narrative Technique at Florida State University. This book explains and exemplifies form, structure, showing and telling, atmosphere, point of view, comparison, and theme. She also makes the observation: “The quality of the communication is under judgement; the author’s character is not.” Bear this in mind when you get your rejection letter. And when you review people’s published books!

  • The Weekend Novelist, by Robert J. Ray. If, like me, you are not a full-time writer, you may find this staged approach to novel-writing is useful. It talks in turn about character, scene building, plotting, drafting, and rewriting.  


  • The Novelist’s Guide, by Margret Geraghty. A straightforward approach to characters, identification, dialogue, plot, symbolism, and closure from a UK-based columnist for Writer’s News. 
  • The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. “Mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters.” Although it has screenwriters as a large part of its target audience, this book is useful for novelists too. It’s inspired by the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell—he of “The Hero’s Journey” which has defined so much of contemporary Hollywood film making. It’s good because it explains how stories work. Vogler has also worked on scripts for Disney, Warner Bros., United Artists, Touchstone Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox.

The books I’ve referenced here are about the basics of good writing, because that’s where at least 90% of submissions fail, and fail badly. There are other books about the legal, contractual, pitching, and marketing aspects of novel writing. Personally, I think if you’re worrying about those instead of about the basics of writing, you’re already planning to fail.

Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2009: A Directory for Writers, Artists, Playwrights, Designers, Illustrators and Photographers (Writers' & Artists' Yearbook)The other thing that these books don’t really address is verbal criticism and analysis of other writers’ work, though that is inherent any time you read something. A good book for that, if you feel the need, is Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, an analysis of narrative from Homer to Joyce which provides examples in literary fiction of telling/showing, authorial voice, etc.

And if you want to know the current information about getting published in the UK, find a copy of the latest Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or check out their website.

Useful websites

  • The Eclectic Writer: Well over 100 great links for writers. These include articles about presentation, setting, endings, writing synopses, overcoming writer’s block; there are genre resources (including sf and fantasy, horror, mystery); there are online journals, awards, technical writing, screenwriting; reference sites; research sites; organisations…
  • Zoetrope: Yes, that Zoetrope. Subscribe to the on-line publication that features new fiction from (among others) Francis Ford Coppola. And while you’re there, check out their writing classes.
  • Plot: Damon Knight’s excellent online summary, excerpted from his book Creating Short Fiction (this article is in public domain).
  • References, conferences, author information, etc.
  • Seven suggestions: Worth mentioning specifically from the absolutewrite site, this is John Ross’s seven suggestions for writing a novel is a succinct online summary which prints on two sheets what most writing books will tell you in at least seven chapters.

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